Historical metaphors can be dangerous things. Politicians, scholars and journalists often use them to back up an argument or explain a complex contemporary situation. But when the person has a selective memory and cherry-picks facts, he or she can cause more harm than good.
By contrast, a person with knowledge of both past and present can provide a valuable public service. That's the case with Cullen Murphy, who with "Are We Rome?" has produced a tightly written and humorous essay comparing the current trends in U.S. politics and government with the situation in Rome before it fell.
Though he occasionally overreaches, and though he loves showing off his knowledge of arcane matters, Mr. Murphy's book should receive considerable attention from those who want to understand what can happen when a superpower has blinders on.
"President and Emperor, America and Rome — the comparison by now is so familiar, so natural, that you just can't help yourself: it comes to the mind unbidden, in the reflexive way that the behavior of chimps reminds you of the behavior of people," he writes.
Mr. Murphy, an editor-at-large of Vanity Fair, has read extensively about both the ancient and modern worlds. Though he breaks little new ground, he does make references to many of the landmark studies of classical Rome, including British author and politician Edward Gibbon's seminal work "The Decline and Fall Of The Roman Empire," which ironically was published in 1776, just as the British Empire was beginning its long slide.
In this book, Mr. Murphy makes good use of his research and combines this knowledge with a strong liberal ideology to produce a critique of the policies implemented by both of today's political parties.
He contends that the Iraq war and other attempts at nation-building are symptomatic of the kind of arrogance and miscalculation that did in the Roman Empire.
Though historians have offered many explanations for the fall of Rome, among the most frequently cited ones is a government that saw itself as invincible and was incapable of thinking that the prosperous times would end. Add to that a sense of complacency and an attitude that foreigners are less enlightened than we are, and you have a recipe for implosion.
Mr. Murphy contends that the United States and Rome also share an "imperial overstretch" in which security and related needs outstrip the resources available to satisfy them. That's why you have an increased reliance on privatization to support military and other operations.
His argument falls short, however, when he does not acknowledge the seriousness of the enemies that America faces. While the war in Iraq is the subject of much debate, the United States should be flexing its muscle to ensure that Islamic fundamentalist terrorists don't do further damage. For that, we need a strong military capable not only of defeating enemies but of deterring them from attacks. What is needed is to split the difference between the arrogance of many on the right and the timidity of those on left.
Mr. Murphy notes that America, like Rome, has had an exalted sense of its importance since the beginning.
When the Puritans settled Massachusetts in the 17th century, John Winthrop noted that "we must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us."
That tradition, combined with the fact that the United States is the world's only remaining superpower, makes it important for politicians to be wary of going too far. Mr. Murphy's book is an effective guide to learning from the past.
His book would be more approachable for general audiences if he had eliminated some of the esoteric examples and complicated language.
When backing up his argument about the near impossibility of implementing serious immigration reform, he notes: "Politicians can tweak the laws, but 'policy' is a microclimate compared with the swirling vortex of the American economy and American culture."
If you have a dictionary and encyclopedia handy, reading "Are We Rome? The Fall of An Empire and the Fate of America" will be both enjoyable and educational.
Claude R. Marx is a political columnist for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass., and author of a chapter on media and politics in the just-published book "The Sixth Year Itch."